Did pre-Islamic Arabians bury infants alive?

Uzza asked: Is there any archeological or other support for the claim that pre-Islamic Arabs buried children alive? AFAIK, there are a couple of passing mentions of this in the Quran and Hadith, I’ve never heard anything from non-Muslim sources.

Sorry it’s taken me a while to answer this, but I wanted to do enough research to be fairly confident in my answer of . . . I don’t think so.  I know, not a particularly helpful answer, but it’s the best I can manage.

First, I think it’s worth giving a bit of background.  There are stories that in pre-Islamic Arabia, even up to the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the Arabians buried female infants alive because women were considered less valuable than men.  This is mentioned in Muslims sources to stress the improvements made to the life of women by the Qur’an and Islamic law.  The citation given the most often is the Qur’anic verses 16.58-59, which are addressed to the polytheists in Mecca: “When if one of them receiveth tidings of the birth of a female, his face remaineth darkened, and he is wroth inwardly.  He hideth himself from the folk because of the evil of that whereof he hath had tidings, (asking himself): Shall he keep it in contempt or bury it beneath the dust!  Verily evil is their judgment.”

As you can see from the English rendering, the Qur’anic verse does not openly accuse the Meccan polytheists of burying infants, but it’s clear how that interpretation could be read from this passage.  I think, firstly, this is one of those passages where it’s important to remember that the stories which explain Qur’anic passages were codified several centuries after the first revelation of the Qur’an, and so it is possible that the meaning has been expanded beyond the original intention.

As for archaeological evidence, I’ve checked several studies on the archaeology of Mecca, and unfortunately I could only find a few references to burials, and none mentioning infant burials of any kind.

I think there are two reasons why there is no known evidence for or against this claim.  The first is that, in order to evidence that a child had buried alive, we would need a large sample size of burials, a clear majorities of female bodies, and preferably some sort of evidence for how the burial took place, such as the placement of the body.  We just don’t have enough examples of burial sites to make this kind of judgment.

This fact stems from the second problem with evidencing this claim, which is true of archaeology throughout the Mediterranean – it’s really tough to get the right to excavate.  Meccan burial sites are under the current, living city of Mecca.  As academics, we have access to the ruins that remain above ground, but for excavations within a city, there’s probably someone living over the thing you want to excavate, and so you would need a reason to kick them out and dig up their house.  As Mediterranean cities have often remained inhabited for centuries, there are levels of archaeological evidence that we only have access to in particular circumstances, like construction projects.

So as far as I know, there’s no evidence about infant burials one way or the other.  I would argue that from a practical standpoint, it seems unlikely that the stories are true, or that the practice was common, as presumably an accusation about it could be leveled against the converted Muslims as well as the polytheist Meccans – even if they stopped the practice at their conversion, they might have done it in the past.

There’s also the fact that gender relations tend to be far more balanced in nomadic or semi-nomadic societies – limited resources mean that all members of the community need to produce goods in order to be useful.  There just simply isn’t the surplus of goods needed to allow half the community to be provided for without playing an active role in the production of goods.

I would be inclined to argue that these verses should be read hyperbolically, that it was a practice that had taken place in the past, but that it was being used in this passage to highlight that there were still inconsistencies between the rights of men and the rights of women that the Qur’an eliminated.  The sura then goes on to remind the listener not to treat people unfairly, because he or she will be judged by God for his or her actions, and I think that’s really the point of these verses.  But really, that’s just me.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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10 Responses to Did pre-Islamic Arabians bury infants alive?

  1. Uzza says:

    Hey, by a weird coincidence I just stumbled over anther reference to this. Clapp, Nicholas, The Road To Ubar. Houghton Mifflin. Boston. 1998. p 257. He’s talking about the people of ‘Ad, the city the Koran says Allah demolished, and speculating as to why they were reputed to be so wicked, he mentions

    …the prevalence of female infanticide. The prophet Mohammad felt the practice was poison to the cup of Arabia. As he sought to reform his world, eliminating it was his first and major social concern. Muhammad’s assertions in the Koran are reinforced by a grim account offered by Abu al-Kasim al-Zamakhshari, an early commenter on the Koran:

    When an Arab had a daughter born, if he intended to bring her up, he sent her, clothed in a garment of wool or hair, to keep camels or sheep in the desert; but if he designed to put her to death, he let her live till she became six years old and then said to her mother, “Perfume her, and adorn her, that I may carry her to her mothers”; which being done, the father led her to a well or pit dug for that purpose, and having her bid to look down into it, pushed her in headlong, as he stood behind her, and then filling up the pit, leveled it with the rest of the ground. Others say that when a woman was ready to fall in labor, they dug a pit, on the brink whereof she was to be delivered; and if the child happened to be a daughter, they threw it into the pit; but if a son, they saved it alive.7

    We can understand why the historian a;-Tabari wrote of the “inhuman brutality” of the People of ‘Ad, which they “indulged without remorse, and with unmitigated ferocity.” So it may have been that, beholding the dark practices of pre-Islamic Arabia, Muhammad preached that Allah told the People of ‘Ad: “An ignominous punishment whall be yours this day, because you behaved with pride and i9njustice of the earth and committed evil.”

    note 7 : cited on p94 of Sale, George, ed. the Koran. London:Thomas Tegg and Son, 1838.

    I’ve never heard of the first guy, but Sale is pretty authoritative, but this just sounds like more propaganda by the winners writing about the losers. Not buying it, but it is another reference, new to me anyhow, thought it was worth sharing.

    • Very interesting. Al-Zamakhshari was a muhaddith and a poet, who lived in the early twelfth century (not sure why Sale calls him an ‘early’ commentator!), so Sale is still drawing on sources from several centuries later, but it is interesting that he gives credence to the stories. Thanks!

  2. historywrittenbytherotten says:

    … I have read sources proclaiming that Pre-Islamic Saudi was actually indeed a Matriarchal society, where women could marry more than one husband. Is this claim true?

  3. Manar says:

    “the Qur’anic verse does not openly accuse the Meccan polytheists of burying infants”
    How about this one ?
    “And when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked, for what sin she was slain!” (Quran: 81: 8,9)

    • Right, as I explain in the post, that’s not an explicit reference to anything. You can tell because taken out of context, that phrase makes very little sense. A direct accusation would be “hey you, Meccans, stop murdering girls.” No one would read that sentence out of context and assume people were murdering infants, particularly since the girl child is still alive.

  4. Abdul Hakim says:

    Several odd affirmations in this response. Firstly, not all pre-Islamic Arabs were nomads. So while the idea that women in nomadic societies are useful and therefore unlikely to be killed may make sense (to an extent) for the nomads, what about the large number of city-dwellers? Or don’t they exist?

    Secondly, the idea that the Qur’an isn’t criticising female infanticide because it doesn’t sound like a National Enquirer headline is -how can I say this delicately?- ridiculous.

    Thirdly, the fact that because archeologists don’t have access to burial sites in Makka we should assume that there was no female infanticide is an odd argument.

    A more sensible approach would be to acknowledge what the Qur’an is saying without making silly demands of it, and to interpret it in the light of other verses which indicate the stigma attached to having girls, as well as of course hadith literature (Orientalist arguments based on isnad-envy notwithstanding) which is explicit in condemnation of female infanticide and encourages having daughters.

    And further use of written sources would explain why female infanticide existed: because, like in India nowadays, it was the woman’s side that had to pay the dowry and hence having numerous daughters put a huge burden on the family. So just like in India they use scans to decide whether to keep the baby or abort, less technologically developed pre-Islamic Arabs used a slightly less refined method to deal with the problem. We see it now, why would we be surprised that it existed before?

    So to summarise, the answer to the question is that female infanticide existed in pre-Islamic Arabia. We don’t know how widespread it was and whether it affected all tribes/regions. But it was definitely a phenomenon that was widespread and common enough for the Qur’an and the Prophet to address it.

  5. Hamza says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful and interesting post!

    A couple of points you could address:

    1) “presumably an accusation about it could be leveled against the converted Muslims as well as the polytheist Meccans” – this is not a good reason to suspect the practice never occurred!

    Muslim converts would (and continue to) have done many things before Islam that are abhorrent – that’s kind of the point of conversion (!) and the transformative power of Islam is a recurring trope in Islamic texts from the Quran down to sermons today.

    In any case the Hadith literature does in fact report converts asking the Prophet how to atone for having killed their daughters previously – I can dig out the sources if that’s helpful (point taken about Hadith collections being more than a century later, but the “accusation was levelled”, which was the point being made).

    2) “gender relations tend to be far more balanced in nomadic or semi-nomadic societies” – apart from the fact the Makkah depicted in the Quran and Hadith reports is explicitly a city of merchants, slaves and social stratification, not a semi/nomadic society, infanticide (particularly female if I recall) has in fact been a stain on human civilisation up to the present day.

    I recall reading about the prevalence of female infanticide in the Aboriginal Australians persisting into the mid-20th century particularly in times of a scarcity (again I can dig sources which you might be better placed to evaluate!) while selective female abortion is a tragically common modern iteration of the practice in India and China.

    • Thanks – those are both very good points! I wrote this post several years ago, and I expect there’s been some more work published on this issue, along with a lot of useful comments – maybe it’s time for a followup!

      • Hamza says:

        Yikes! I only discovered your lovely blog recently and really did not see the date on that!

        Looking forward to any further light you can shed 🙂

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